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Prizes

I greatly enjoyed attending the Prizegiving evening of a Sheffield primary school this week.  The palpable sense of ambition and pride in achievement radiating from pupils, parents and members of staff was wonderfully impressive and identical to the atmosphere at the equivalent Birkdale evening.  Birkdale has established a partnership with the primary school; every Wednesday afternoon, as part of our Community Service programme, 2 taxi-loads of Sixth Form students head off for an afternoon of activity and variety.  The Sixth Formers spend a happy couple of hours assisting with Art and reading and emerge, often as not, covered in paint and glue.  Recently they have set up a Latin club and have seemingly emptied the Birkdale Classics department of ‘spare’ resources and ‘good’ ideas for teaching activities in the service of introducing 10 year olds to the delights of the Classical World.  The whole project is an excellent example of a genuine partnership, not regulated for by government in response to ideological insistence but a spontaneous and mutually beneficial local arrangement.  The primary school receives some willing, enthusiastic and useful volunteers and the Sixth Formers genuinely enjoy working with the children and broadening their horizons.

The awarding of prizes is, of course, fraught with difficulty.  Prizes offer the chance to acknowledge excellence in particular attributes, setting examples to the wider school community as well as using healthy competition to raise standards.  But which attributes to reward?  One might go for out and out achievement, recognising that most prizes in later life are awarded in this way.  On the other hand perhaps these students have glory and success enough through gaining sparkling public examination results, at least in due course.  In addition, the same pupils may win the academic prizes year after year as they compete against the same cohort at different stages through their education; other pupils are doomed to come second repeatedly.

It is tempting to reward effort; in many ways this is more virtuous than achievement and certainly something to be encouraged amongst all pupils of whatever ability.  Equally this can have a whiff of the patronising as Jennings strides up to receive the effort prize despite his well-known position perilously close to the bottom of the bottom set.

Then there is the notion of rewarding ‘the most improved’: effectively a hybrid of rewarding effort and achievement, and with obvious appeal, but perhaps succeeding in neither regard.  These prizes are sometimes won by pupils who, having underperformed for a couple of years, begin to work hard as public examination years approach and zoom up the rankings; whilst it is pleasing that they are now performing at a good level it is perhaps unfair to those who have achieved at the highest levels for many years and to those who have laboured diligently with less success.

The same dilemmas overshadow extra-curricular prizes: does one reward the captain of the rugby team, who already enjoys the status of captaincy, or the faithful squad attendee who lacks the captain’s talent or the determined pupil who has secured a place in the A team after diligent progress upwards through the ranks?  And how does one compare this with successes in different sports, whether team or individual?

Once a decision is reached on these prizes, a nagging sense of wishing to reward students who have made a great contribution to the life of the school, through positive and cheerful service to others, remains.  This is, of course, difficult to measure and schools oscillate between asking one member of staff to simply nominate individuals through to a fully-fledged voting system for the whole staff or possibly the pupils.

The next consideration is the larger number of students who have not won a prize and whose response to the whole business may range from complete indifference to a catastrophic loss of self-esteem, feeling that their efforts and achievements have gone unrewarded and perhaps even unnoticed and unappreciated by the school.  Worrying too much about this can lead to some dubious conclusions: no prizes to be awarded at all to prevent the possibility of emotional damage to a few; all must have prizes to nurture self-esteem but meaning that the importance of the prize is devalued to nought; an end to competitive activities of all sorts.  Perhaps managing the disappointment of not winning a prize is a valuable life-lesson in itself.

The Birkdale prize lists contain prizes of all the above types and more which at least seems to cover all bases.  We award prizes as part of a formal evening, insisting that the winners stride across the stage in front of their less favoured peers to a backdrop of applause, regardless of whether adolescent shyness might mean that they would prefer to avoid the limelight and simply pocket the cash.  Again, accepting public success without showing arrogance seems an important life-lesson.

The final decision is what the prizes should comprise.  At Birkdale, mindful of the need to promote reading of all sorts in a predominantly visual age, and anxious to supply a semi-permanent memorial, we proffer book tokens hopeful that the prize-winners will purchase ‘mind-improving literature’, however that may be defined, rather than celebrity biography.  Perhaps, however, the prize-winners would prefer cinema tickets, iTunes vouchers or an ice-cream.

Talking of ice-cream, the holidays are upon us; have a great summer.

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